Getting to the TOPP of Houston's air pollution

August 09, 2005

HOUSTON, Aug. 9, 2005 -- As state environmental regulators prepare to implement Texas' latest plan to bring Houston into compliance with federal clean air standards, researchers from Rice University and Valparaiso University are conducting the first systematic survey of ozone levels in the air above Houston using weather balloons.

The Tropospheric Ozone Pollution Project, or TOPP, is measuring ozone levels from ground level to altitudes of more than 100,000 feet. Daily balloon launches continue through August 12.

Lightweight instrument packs on the balloons radio information about atmospheric ozone levels to computers on the ground, giving researchers a clear picture of how much ozone is present in each layer of the atmosphere above Houston. Prior to this study, all long-term ozone monitoring in Houston was limited to surface measurements.

"Ours is the first study to look at ozone in each layer of the atmosphere above Houston," said lead researcher Gary Morris, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Valparaiso and adjunct assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Rice. "Over the past year, we've seen that high levels of ozone extend much higher than previously believed, up to three or four miles in some instances."

Begun last summer with $40,000 seed funding from Rice's Shell Center for Sustainability, TOPP won a two-year, $100,000 grant from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The TCEQ funding will pay for 80 launches this summer and next.

The majority of the balloons are launched from Rice's Academic Quadrangle, but TOPP is increasing its scope this summer, looking beyond the immediate Houston area to get a regional baseline and to look for 'downwind' effects from Houston's ozone pollution.

"TCEQ is interested not only in characterizing the ozone above Houston, but also in finding out where that ozone ends up," Morris said. "To that end, they've given us extra money to launch about 15 percent of our balloons from sites that are 80-100 miles from the city."

TOPP researchers have launched several balloons at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches and at Lamar University in Beaumont. They launched their first balloon at Texas A&M University in College Station in late July and have plans to launch more balloons there.

"Without knowing the full magnitude of Houston's ozone problem, policy makers will have a difficult time implementing effective solutions," Morris said.

Morris and his team ask that residents keep an eye out for their instrument packs, which parachute back to earth at the end of each flight. Those lucky enough to find one can earn $30 by following the directions on the styrofoam box and mailing it back to Rice.

Houston air often exceeds federal standards for ground-level ozone. Ozone poses a health risk for people with respiratory problems, and persistently high levels of ozone also can destroy plants and reduce crop yields. Federal regulators have given the Houston-Galveston region until 2007 to comply with federal air quality standards for ground-level ozone. The region faces severe penalties -- including the loss of federal highway dollars -- if it fails to clean up its air.

Rice University

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